John Cho on A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, Meeting the World's Leaders, and Talking Basketball with the President
The sweetest feel-good flick of the holiday season may well be the one about two ex-BFFs, who'd once gone in search of White Castle sliders and tangled with Homeland Security, who reunite on Christmas Eve to hunt down the perfect fir, crossing paths with drug-sniffing babies, Ukrainian gangsters, and a sweater-clad Danny Trejo along the way. Stoner heroes Harold and Kumar have come a long way since 2004 -- and so has co-star John Cho, who sat down with Movieline recently to talk H&K, career moves, and his encounters with the likes of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President Obama.
And why shouldn't the leaders of the world mingle with Cho and sometimes-White House staffer Kal Penn? In three films, their Harold and Kumar characters have grown into American cinematic heroes of a sort, post-racial emblems of a generation balancing budding responsibility with the occasional marijuana puff. There's a surprising amount of well-intentioned life lessons to be found in the franchise's latest holiday-themed installment, which Cho succinctly describes as "both a perversion of and an homage to" seasonal classics like A Christmas Story and the entire Rankin/Bass oeuvre.
Read on as Cho shares his thoughts on the Harold & Kumar franchise, the shenanigans he was afraid of his mother seeing, and what he talked about upon meeting President Obama and various other political and cultural luminaries.
How long had a Christmas movie specifically been in the works for Harold and Kumar, and why did it make sense?
Well, the first question -- I feel like it was in the works as soon as the project was in the works. It was 3-D and Christmas, all kind of a bundle idea. How does it fit? For me, there are a lot of things. We wanted to age the characters. I couldn't imagine doing a movie set a minute after the second one, it just didn't feel like we could keep them at 23 or however old they were. And I was interested in playing something else, having them in different circumstances. The first movie was sort of this race polemic in a lot of ways, and the second one was this goof on political satire; I didn't think we could keep that going with a third one. How far can we go with this particular direction? So they pitched this idea of a Christmas movie and I thought it seemed radical to then go very traditional, ironically. So it's perfect.
It's a Christmas movie that hits all the beats of a holiday film, but at the same time it is completely and totally a Harold and Kumar story.
Right -- it's both a perversion of and an homage to, you know?
It's also self-aware, in that the film acknowledges perceived criticisms out of the gate. You have a line about the necessity of 3-D, there's a conversation about jumping the shark...
Well, that's become the language of our movies at this point, to goof on ourselves and to goof on whatever we're doing. Somehow they get away with it -- we've always had our cake and eaten it, too. We bring up stereotypes and then make fun of them, so we're kind of guilty of bringing them up in the first place but we make fun of them, too.
[A plate of sliders is brought in for Cho.]
You want a burger?
No, thanks. No waffles at this junket?
No waffles. [Pause] So that's kind of been our thing now at this point. We just do both things. Going back to the first question, by the way, the most important thing that happened, I think, between the second and the third one in our real lives, is that Neil [Patrick Harris] came out! So there was this whole thing, he was this cooze-hound. [Laughs] This was the opportunity for a fun joke here. That was a brilliant move.
Hayden [Schlossberg] and Jon [Hurwitz] have written all three Harold & Kumar movies. I'm curious as to how collaborative they are with you and Kal...
They do their thing and we sit in awe of them, really. That's kind of more the process. They run it by us and I figure if we had a real problem we could definitely say something. We're so close at this point. Really, we're friends; we go to each other's weddings and all that stuff. I was concerned about some things in this script but I kept my mouth shut because I do feel like if I start tampering with it, because of my vanity or my own values, they wouldn't be Harold & Kumar movies anymore. I don't want to mess with a winning formula.
What sort of things do you mean?
[SPOILERS] I was concerned about the baby -- the drug baby. [Laughs] I was concerned about the penis on the pole... [END SPOILERS]
Were you worried that audiences would reject those gags?
Well, just that my mother would see it at some point. I just felt like maybe it was... embarrassing to family?
How does your family feel about this character? I mean, certainly your other work, even Sulu in Star Trek, should make up for any embarrassing scenes from Harold & Kumar.
Maybe. I mean I've done stuff that's more...
I mean, Sulu is an important character that marked an advance for Asians in pop culture.
Yes -- I would argue that Harold and Kumar are, too!
They totally are.
But you know, from my mother's point of view -- which is the relevant point of view, the most important point of view -- she has other things to talk about as well. She liked Flash Forward, she liked Star Trek. But honestly, they love these movies too in the sense that I think what we get away with is they're kind of well-meaning dudes, and the movies are well-intentioned. We get away with stuff, it's kind of surprising. Most of all to me.
That underlying heart and sweetness makes Harold & Kumar stand out within the category of so-called stoner movies, but this installment in particular seems to be advocating on behalf of responsible drug use -- at the end, marijuana brings friends together.
You're right, maybe it could be read that way. Also, I feel like what was nice about aging the characters was that the audience aged and it was a nod to them. Harold and Kumar, though older, are still the same guys at their core. So it was a nod to our audiences as well. I see it as a valentine to them, too.
Do you feel something similar with the American Pie franchise, which has another sequel coming out that sees familiar characters come back years later?
Yes. We did a reunion movie now, so I think it'll be interesting as the people who were in high school when the first movie came out have now gone to their ten-year reunion, which is crazy. It'll be another way to relate to that movie.
Kal mentioned that he doesn't think of the Harold & Kumar franchise as a stoner series.
You know, it never really sunk in that we were in a stoner movie because we don't spend much of the movie being high. There's basically about two scenes per movie where we're smoking weed, and then the rest of the movie we're stone cold sober and pissed.
And the third one doesn't really have a fantasy --
Weed sequence! Well, there was a Russian belladonna scene, the Claymation sequence. But we didn't have a romance-weed sequence, either. That was my one regret. I love watching that stuff. The suspension of disbelief runs strongly within me.
You share scenes with Danny Trejo, who plays your disapproving -- but Christmas-obsessed -- father-in-law. Is he scary in real life... when he's wearing a silly Christmas sweater?
Slightly less scary, I'd say. But as soon as they yell "Cut," he takes it off.
Oh, yeah. If you had all those tattoos you'd be wanting to show them off, too. Very scary man.
How did all those cameos come together? Personal favors from funny friends?
A little bit, but there was more of that with the first one -- the personal phone calls. They're very choosy with who they use, because sometimes the studio is pitching someone who's on a show, very popular, and that's not necessarily who the team wants. They're looking for somebody who fits, has the right sensibility. So I can really say we're happy about each and every cameo because they're very particular. And to get the RZA, or Bobby Lee, or Elias Koteas -- it's just a weird, wide variety. It somehow works, I don't know why.
RZA's cameo is as one of two African-American Christmas tree salesmen who the audience sees playing deliberately with stereotypes, which brings me back to Hayden and Jon -- how do two white guys get it right when it comes to this franchise starring Asian-American heroes, in which the characters aren't necessarily built around their own ethnicities but many of the jokes are?
I think they're just honest. There's a guy named Harold Lee that they wrote this series about, who I'm very close to know. I think they just grew up hearing him talk and they just know him, and they just stole from his life. You know, the first script had a lot more culturally-specific references because it was a defensive thing. They were afraid that the studio would change the title to David and Jason Go to McDonald's. So they wrote more culturally-specific talk that didn't make it in the movie. And there's plenty in the movie, but there was even more in the first draft in order to dissuade someone from changing it. So they use a lot of Harold. I think it's great; that stuff adds to the specificity and makes him more real.
You've got Total Recall coming up; how do you feel that fits into your career as a whole, the kinds of roles you take?
I don't know that I think about my career in the bigger sense. I appreciate the way it's turned out, looking back, but there wasn't a lot of planning. It's more emotional, like somebody presents an idea and you react to it. It's more like somebody comes to you with an idea and you say, that sounds great. It feels good. And I also have this rule now, because I've made this mistake before, of doing something because your agents say you should. It's always a bad idea because you don't bring much to the project when you're not excited about it on a very personal level.
...Which project are you talking about?
[Smiling] I'm not gonna say... [jokingly] Star Trek. Clearly I'm talking about Star Trek.
Obviously! So, we all know Kal went to the White House for a few years. You also visited the White House recently. What was that experience like?
That was, strangely enough, my second visit. I went earlier this summer and met [Obama] in the Oval Office, and this time I went for a State dinner and it was great. I brought my father, so that was a mind-blower for him. It was a very, very special evening. And I also got a chance to meet a lot of Korean heroes of mine, [like] Chang-rae Lee. It's funny how we were all keeping tabs on one another as Koreans. I was like, "You!" and he was like, "You!" Even, like, Secretary-General of the U.N. Ban Ki-moon. It was just really crazy.
Wait - Secretary General Ban Ki-moon knew you... from your movies? He watches your career?
Yeah. That blew my mind. It was pretty wild.
When you met the President, was Harold & Kumar a touchstone for him? Did you talk about your movies?
We talked about the basketball lockout. [Laughs] When I first met him, he was just curious about what I've been up to, and what I was working on.
Have you ever been inspired to do something like Kal did, taking time off for public service?
I wouldn't want to do what he did, personally, but from my perspective I don't know that I have the stamina to do a job that hard.
A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas 3-D is in theaters today.
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